Thursday, August 25, 2005

More photos: REALonline

Over on the Paternosters mailing list, fellow historical-rosary enthusiast Marion McNealy recently alerted me to a source for more online photos.

She writes, "I've been browsing around in REALonline, the Austrian equivalent to, only it's much better indexed and searchable. It mainly has artworks, most in color, but it does have a few objects. I *love* this site!"

Marion has also very helpfully written a user's guide to REALonline for those of us whose German isn't as good as hers. :) Thanks, Marion!

The Austrian version of the German language is a bit different, so the best keyword in searching for rosaries turns out to be "Betschnur" (literally "prayer-string") rather than "rosenkranz" ("rose-wreath") which is the most useful word on the Bildindex site in Germany.

A search on "Betschnur" turns up a few actual rosaries, indexed under "Materielle Objekte" in the catalog. There are many other references to rosaries in paintings, sculptures and woodcuts, which I've only just begun to explore.

Here, for instance, is a color photo of the small rosary I used as the inspiration for my German horn beads. I knew the description said it was "blue-green" but I certainly didn't expect this color!

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Acorns revisited

I have still not figured out the mystical significance (if any) of acorns. But they still keep turning up somehow connected with rosaries.

Here's a recent item that turned up on Ebay -- a nice wooden rosary with acorn-shaped marker beads. It's Italian-made, but it's a souvenir from Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in New York state.


The seller speculates that perhaps the beads are made of oak wood, which would explain why the Our Father beads (gauds) might be in the form of acorns. This is certainly possible, although (with the exception of olive wood beads from Palestine) most wooden rosary beads in modern times don't seem to be made from anything special -- often just some nameless inexpensive wood, sometimes ebony or rosewood.

The acorns could also be a reference to the original vision of Fatima, where -- if I'm remembering correctly -- children saw the Virgin Mary in the top of a small oak tree.

However none of this explains the presence of acorn-shaped beads in rosaries made before 1917, the date of the visions at Fatima. In particular, it doesn't explain Balthasar's acorns, a portrait from the 1500s showing a rosary with just such beads.

I'm still looking for clues.

In the meantime, it would also be nice to find some modern wooden acorn-shaped beads to make a reproduction of Balthasar's beads, but I don't seem to find those either. They don't look in the painting as though they are particularly finely carved, and the one modern set of beads I've seen that resembled them were also rather crudely carved (I assume they are "folk art"). Unfortunately I'm no woodcarver or I'd try making some.

Perhaps my erratic "finder's luck" will kick in. I began looking for flat disk-shaped beads several years ago in order to make reproductions of a couple of intriguing historical rosaries that use disk-shaped counters rather than round beads. I looked in vain for about three years: then suddenly "doughnut" shaped flat round beads became popular, and are now quite common in bead stores and catalogs -- semiprecious stone, wood, bone, glass and just about any other material. Maybe two or three years from now, acorns will suddenly become popular -- probably just as I've learned how to carve wood. :)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Beads à la mode

Inspired by some of the unusual bead choices made by the students I mentioned awhile back who made rosaries in art class, I occasionally go looking to see whether anyone is making any really creative modern rosaries. Certainly Rosary Workshop, one of my favorite places to buy supplies, has some fine examples such as this one:

Historically, rosaries have tended to follow the fashions in jewelry of the time when they are made, and I have indeed found a few rosaries that are quite modern looking. But they seem to be pretty thin on the ground. Looking at my frequent hunting ground, eBay, there seem to be only half a dozen people doing anything that really looks contemporary.

Black-white closeup

From what I've seen, these modern-looking rosaries don't seem to sell quite as well as more traditional-looking ones. A little arithmetic on a sample of conventional glass rosaries tells me that about a third of the ones featured on eBay will sell, in any given week. For rosaries that look "contemporary," it's more like one out of four, though it varies.


What seems to sell the best is to take beads that are a little unusual -- barrel shapes, teardrops, cubes, bright colors -- and to make them into a rosary that's constructed in the conventional way, perhaps spending a bit more money to get a good quality, modern-looking cross and medals. Some of these sell as well as traditional rosaries.


Pricing is also important. A lot of eBay is about "collectibles," and people seem willing to pay quite a bit more for a rosary with "history," perhaps one that is very worn, has unusual medals or has some personal history attached. But new rosaries priced over about $25 seem to sell very slowly, and those in the $15 range do much better. (Of course the drawback to this is that the rosary maker gets very little money for the time they put in.)

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Voldemort II

As I mentioned a week or so ago, some of the small ivory sculptures I've been running across remind me of the character Voldemort in the Harry Potter books -- whose name, incidentally, contains the Latin root "mort" (death).

Head MI11903b04a

Usually these little ivory sculptures -- called "Memento Moris" -- have a living person's face on one side and a grinning skull on the other. Most of the ones I've seen have some arrangement for stringing as pendants -- either an attached ring at the top or a vertical hole bored through them.

(Here's a closeup of the skull side of the example above.)

Skull-132 MI11903b03a

I don't have a lot of data on how these were actually used or worn -- they are almost always described as components of a rosary or paternoster, but I haven't seen any pictorial or documentary evidence of them being used that way. (Rosaries like the one in my first post are usually reconstructions.) I would be unsurprised to see them on, for instance, a watch chain or somewhere else that a small hanging decorative object would be used. These remind me strongly of the Japanese netsuke, similar little sculptures that have become a "hot" collectible art form.

Like any other expensive little accessory, these were probably worn as much to show off one's wealth and good taste as for any other reason. However they do have a serious spiritual purpose: as their name indicates, these are reminders that death comes to everyone ("memento mori" = "remember death") and that since it may be unexpected and sudden, being prepared for it spiritually is a good thing.

(Note that the left-hand one of the three below does not actually have a skull -- it has a man's face on one side and a woman's on the other. This makes me wonder whether some of these faces may be actual portraits of the owners rather than generic faces.)

Three MI01600c08a

Three MI01600c09a

I also suspect that, in the days before today's mass media, these gruesome little pieces catered to the same macabre taste as the popular "dance of death" murals -- the most popular one was in Paris -- and paintings and engravings showing a skeletal Death taking the hand of bishops, aristocrats, nuns, and ordinary people. Perhaps it's the same taste that leads modern people to watch vampire movies :)

(I've noticed worms and other creepy-crawlies on the "skull" side of several of these sculptures. This especially gruesome example has them on the "face" side as well. Eeeeeeeuuuuuuwwwwww!)


Posts in this series:

Death's head devotions
Skully bits
Skulls: the inside story
Skulls: the inside story, part 2
Skulls: the inside story, part 3
Voldemort, part 2
A skull of one's own
More living color

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

From a Spanish galleon

A rosary that wasn't?
(but actually I think it is)

Here's another one of those "Duh!" stories like Balthasar's acorns, where a little more information makes clear that my first guess was wrong.

Up for sale on eBay about four years ago was what was billed as a rosary from 1715, specifically (the seller said) from one of the wrecks of the 1715 spanish treasure fleet, wrecked on the inshore reefs between Sebastian and Ft.Pierce, Florida, on July 31, 1715. It's said to be "solid gold" and was said to have been assessed at $47,000. (It sold for considerably less -- in the hundreds rather than the thousands.)


I took one look at this and snorted. There are no beads on it, just a chain. I was convinced it had to be a necklace.

Spanish overall

I wrote to the seller to ask if they had any better photos. (Sellers are often quite willing to provide these to a polite inquirer if they have them -- very useful for anyone who collects pictures of something, even if you never bid on the specific piece they're offering.) I also pointed out the lack of beads and asked if they were sure this was really a rosary. I have to say, the reply I got was a bit rude, and it convinced me that a lot of sellers, especially dealers, really do not want to hear about it if you have information about their items :)

Spanish closeup

However, looking at this again with what I know today, I actually think it's a rosary after all. Here's what I think has happened. The original beads have all disappeared. The long links of wire we are seeing with a loop on each end originally each had a bead on them. Here's a diagram.


If you count the empty wire-links, there are indeed ten of them in a group, with a rather complicated-looking little group of stuff between each group. There are seven decades in all, a mildly unusual but not at all unheard-of number (the Franciscan Crown, for instance, has seven decades). The in-between bits of stuff each represent a gaud or marker bead. Each is composed of a short length of chain, a wire link similar to the others but with two loose bead caps remaining on it, and another short length of chain. Again the bead is now missing.

What's become of the beads is anyone's guess. If they were a relatively soft substance such as ivory, wood, amber or even pearls, they could have been destroyed by simple weathering or chewed by some of the local sea life. If they were a hard substance such as glass or agate, they could have been broken. I suspect this piece was also "cleaned up" considerably before being sold, since salvaged items often are, in order to appeal to modern collectors: perhaps there were some remnants of beads that were removed at that time, which is unfortunate for us since we've lost the opportunity to know what they were. The wire parts have probably also been re-linked and cleaned -- whether buried in sand or exposed, it's unlikely to have survived as completely unbroken and shiny as it is now.

rosary or not: part 2


Sunday, August 07, 2005


Another interesting "Rosary or not?" that I've run across a time or two is the so-called "relicario" or "milagros" necklace from the former Spanish colonies in Central America.

Relicario necklace

This is a traditional form of necklace worn -- mostly by women and girls -- both as an expression of religious faith and as something that is thought to provide protection and luck. One common form is a string of beads more or less in the pattern of a rosary, with marker beads at intervals and with a large number of medals, symbols, "relicarios" and "milagros" on it or hanging from it.

A "relicario" is not necessarily an actual saint's relic, but a small religious painting, print or carving set in a metal frame. There is a long tradition of making and wearing relicarios as personal ornaments, dating all the way back to the Spanish conquest. I happened across a very interesting book on the subject, Relicarios: Devotional Miniatures from the Americas by Martha J. Egan, which has abundant pictures and good discussion.

"Milagros" are small cast-metal ornaments similar to the votive "offerings" often given to shrines: little images of the body part or other thing that's felt to be in need of protection or healing. Like the relicarios, these are still being made and sold today. I bought some through eBay that seem to be cast in tin or pewter -- they're very lightweight and very roughly finished. I've seen milagros in the shapes of eyes, hearts, arms and legs, cows, chickens, and male and female heads or praying figures that may represent children or other relatives, or perhaps saints. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Martha Egan has a book on these as well: Milagros: Votive Offerings from the Americas.

Sample milagros

Here's a closeup of the traditional milagro necklace from the Relicarios book shown above:

Relicarios closeup

This has groups of ten beads between the marker beads or gauds, so it could be used as a rosary, but it has twelve decades (groups of ten) rather than the five or fifteen decades one would expect from a rosary.

Here's one that came up for sale on eBay a while back. This one's much less regular in its construction.


I think the question of whether these are really "rosaries" or not has to remain open. Certainly they're often described that way by people who may be a bit hazy on the concept of just what rosary beads should look like. But the final definition of a rosary is whether it's used for rosary prayers, and of course there's no way we can determine that just by looking at the beads.

By the way, if anyone's interested in either relicarios or milagros, Googling on either one seems to turn up plenty of links, including sellers of both antique and new examples.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 04, 2005


I admit it: I'm a Harry Potter fan. You'd think this would have nothing to do with medieval rosaries, wouldn't you?

However, while again cruising the Marburg Foto Archive, I ran across some horridly fascinating little ivory sculptures that immediately put me in mind of Voldemort.

Mori sideways

I'd seen these two pieces before: they're featured in 500 Jahre Rosenkranz, the 1975 exhibition catalog from Köln (Cologne). This is a type of little sculpture called a "Memento Mori", which literally means "remember death." On one side is the face of a living person, and on the other, a skull -- frequently a grinning skull!

(For those who haven't read the Harry Potter books, the first appearance of the villain, Lord Voldemort, is as a disembodied face on the back of Professor Quirrell's head. This is not the only place where author J. K. Rowling is drawing on the vast store of traditional European story-motifs, some of them quite old indeed.)

Medieval skull imagery is not something I deliberately set out to investigate, but I'm intrigued by how I keep tripping over it anyway. In the same collection as the two sculptures above, I ran across an entire string of little Memento-moris that have been formed into a sort of rosary. These pieces are in Köln, but while most of the rosaries in Köln's famous collection are in the diocesan museum, these are from the Schnütgen museum across town.

Memento-mori string
Mori-string 1

To me this does not appear to be an actual rosary. The arrangement doesn't particularly make sense -- why is the extra cross between two beads, rather than at the end? Why are there two beads between some sculptures and only one between others? I strongly suspect that, like the filigree beads I mentioned earlier this week, this originated as a bunch of loose pieces that someone has made into a string.

Mori-string 2

The top bead in particular does not look to me as though it's done in the same artistic style as the others. It's also the only one of the five without a skull: it appears to have a man's face and a woman's back to back, presumably Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. The other four ivories are much more worn down and seem to be much less meticulously carved. The carved cross at the bottom and the metal beads may or may not have had anything to do with the other pieces originally.

There are several more of these Memento-moris at the Schnütgen museum, and we'll take a closer look at them soon.

Posts in this series:

Death's head devotions
Skully bits
Skulls: the inside story
Skulls: the inside story, part 2
Skulls: the inside story, part 3
Voldemort, part 2
A skull of one's own
More living color

Labels: ,

Monday, August 01, 2005

Rosary or not?

One of the perpetually interesting features of eBay auctions is the seller who doesn't really know what they have. The classic instance is when someone is selling off things from a deceased relative's estate. Sometimes a genuinely rare and valuable piece will be a real bargain because the seller has no idea how valuable it actually is. At other times, the seller will mistakenly think they have something rare when it's actually quite common and worth far less than they think.

In rosaries, an area I'm coming to know fairly well, such mistakes are sometimes quite amusing. I've mentioned the "1830 rosary" trap here before. Rather more challenging is looking at some of the pieces people put up for sale and trying to figure out if they are actually rosaries at all. Sometimes people will put together something out of various leftover bits (see Orts) and may or may not succeed in getting them in the right order to make a rosary.

Filigree no beads

Here's an example that turned up on the German eBay recently. As far as I can tell, this is silver filigree round beads from a Biedermeyer rosary, a cross from somewhere else, and some lengths of chain. There are no "Hail, Mary" beads at all, though admittedly the result is a rather pretty necklace if it's long enough.

There's also a certain amount of confusion that I think we can blame on Madonna -- the singer -- since she brought the idea of wearing a rosary as a necklace back into fashion (more on this another time). Now we have sellers offering "rosary necklaces" that are plain old ordinary rosaries, and we also have sellers putting together necklaces that are clearly not really rosaries but have the "look" and referring to them as rosaries. Count the beads before you buy .